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Stoney Nakoda secures spot for pilot project

A pilot project launched in Stoney Nakoda Nation on Thursday (June 25) testing out a Swiss drone to deliver viral live test swabs to urban centres – the first of its kind in Canada

STONEY NAKODA – Testing, testing – one, two, three.

The Stoney Nakoda Nation has been chosen as a testing site for a pilot project between the University of Calgary and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) to fly live viral test kits from rural and isolated areas to urban centres. The team launched the first test flight on Thursday (June 25) from the Resource Centre in the Morley townsite.

"We are honoured to be part of this groundbreaking project," Aaron Khan, Stoney Health Services executive director and CEO said before the takeoff.

Describing the project as "innovative," Khan said the Nation is excited to take part in the project – the first of its kind in Canada – which is focused on drone delivery for live viral test kits. If it proves successful, however, it can later expand to delivering medical supplies, testing kits, medication and personal protective equipment.

The team leads have already used the Swiss drone to pilot remote ultrasound administration – where an ultrasound device is delivered to a physician via drone and administrated with the help of a Zoom call on a smartphone.

"Today went extremely well," said Wade Hawkins, principal investigator from SAIT.

"This is an exciting partnership and the results can potentially make a huge difference, not only for the medical community, but also to help bridge [urban access] to First Nations."

The Centre for Innovation and Research in Unmanned Systems (CIRUS) drone stands at one-metre tall and about three-metres wide, can carry up to about 45 kilograms and has a jet turbine engine. The Thursday test run saw the drone fly from the Morley townsite to Ghost Reservoir and back with the end goal to one day fly the drone all the way to a lab in Calgary.

The viral test kits used during the pilot were not positive COVID-19 swabs, leaving room for error if the drone malfunctioned, but the takeoff and landing went off without an issue.

Operation manager Shahab Moeini said the day started with a bit of stress, as any project launch would, but he was happy with the end results.

"I am extremely happy at the outcome," Moeini said during the launch.

"The machine is performing exceptionally fine ... and we are hopeful to start further collaboration."

The operations manager said he would love to see the technology help First Nation reserves in other ways than delivering supplies, such as also helping map out flood plains.

"It's important to work with First Nations on this great opportunity," he said.

While drone delivery is not a new idea, Hawkins said the inspiration to deliver supplies to Canadian reserves came from a conversation with Dr. John M. Conly, former president of the Canadian Infectious Disease Society.

The conversation came up last November at a health conference, Hawkins said, almost half a year before the pandemic hit. The project was already in the works when COVID-19 swept the world and country. By the time the pandemic hit Alberta, the project leads realized there was an opportunity to fly live viral test kits – the first project of its kind in Canada, possibly North America, Moeini said.

Stoney Tribal Administration CEO Ryan Robb said technology like this can be useful especially during times of a pandemic and outbreak, especially, for example when the number of positive COVID-19 cases went from zero to 18 in a week in the Eden Valley reserve location.

"We are excited to be part of this project," Robb said.

Stoney Nakoda currently has zero active positive cases on the Nation.

Using Morley as the first test site, the team plans to expand the project to the rest of the Nation, going to Eden Valley located further south, near Longview, Alta and Foothills County, next and Bighorn, approximately 160 kilometres north of the Morley reserve, near Clearwater Country last.

"This is a ground-breaking project," Khan said.

"The chief and council are really on board and understand the importance of technology to help the Nation ... and hopefully with our participation and the results of this test, [the project] can be expanded to other communities."